ANIMAS — Several hundred ranchers gathered at a small-town high school in the Bootheel on Thursday to rally against what they described as a broken border.
Also present were members and representatives of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and officials from public security agencies, including the Border Patrol, Army, National Guard and sheriffs. More than 600 people showed up at a school auditorium in Animas, population 237.
Ranchers here have been steaming over the reported kidnapping of a ranch hand in December, when drug runners allegedly hijacked the man’s vehicle, loaded it with narcotics and drove him to Arizona. He came home “roughed up,” his employer Tricia Elbrock said, but he survived the ordeal.
Concerns about border security have simmered for years for those who live among the region’s sprawling ranches and rugged mountain ranges. Sometimes, fears boil over, such as after the unsolved 2010 murder of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, who was found shot dead on his property, or after the recent reported kidnapping.
“How many here think your border is secure?” Elbrock asked to laughs. “I say to all our representatives, come down here. Stay with us. Work with us.”
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Walk the border!”
“And see what it’s like,” Elbrock said. “It’s not safe. We got problems here. They don’t want it known. They don’t want people to know.”
The Krentz story, too, loomed large Thursday as the meeting opened with a video of old news reports about the crime and his widow, Sue, and son Frank spoke to the crowd.
“Secure the border for your family, our family,” Sue Krentz said in prepared remarks that earned a standing ovation. “We’re demanding the right to live free and safe on our own land and in our own homes.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose southern New Mexico district runs along the Mexican border, met with Elbrock before the meeting. He attended, as did staffers for U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and for U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte also attended.
Representatives of the Border Patrol, National Guard and sheriffs from New Mexico and Arizona said they had come to hear the public’s concerns.
“My takeaway is that the people along the border recognize a grave threat to themselves and their communities, and the National Guard is ready to respond to help secure the border,” Brig. Gen. Andrew Salas said.
Border Patrol has had a hard time keeping its Lordsburg station, tasked with securing the Bootheel, fully staffed. The station is budgeted for 284 agents but has been short about 50 agents for months. A Border Patrol spokesman told the Journal recently that there are candidates in the pipeline to fill those slots.
“We work very hard to secure our borders,” Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero told the Journal at the meeting. “Numbers have dropped. You don’t see the type of movement that you saw 10, 20 years ago.”
“The increase in the number of people in the area that are smuggling people and drugs seems to be increasing,” said Lawrence Hurt, whose Hurt Cattle Co. ranch runs nearly 30 miles along the Mexican border. “We see a lot less of the people who are looking for a job. We have a need for the Border Patrol in our area.”
But, Hurt added to a round of applause, “We think they need to be on the border. If we stop them at the line we won’t have as many incidences as we have had in the past.”
Elbrock and other ranchers say they want to see more agents on horses in the region — the best way to patrol rough terrain, they say — and more helicopters.
In New Mexico, Border Patrol apprehended 11,000 unauthorized border crossers in fiscal 2015 and seized more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana.
“The border isn’t secure,” said Bill McDonald, co-founder and executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group, which manages a working cattle ranch and conservation effort on nearly 1 million acres of the Bootheel. “It’s like a balloon. When they tamp down in one area, (drug traffickers) move somewhere else. They’ve got all the technology to move where they see a weakness and right now the weakness is in southwest New Mexico.”